Eugene L. Meyer
Save, perhaps, for a few hardcore World War I buffs, Henry N. Gunther is today little known.
But 90 years ago—on Nov. 11, 1918, to be precise—the Baltimorean became the last American, and possibly the last soldier of any nationality, to die in the Great War. One minute before the Armistice was to take effect at 11 a.m., according to official accounts, Gunther, 23, was fatally shot in the left temple as he stormed a German machine-gun nest. He died instantly, not knowing that the conflict was 60 seconds from being over.
A dozen years later, in 1930, the Sgt. Henry Gunther Post #1858 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was established in his old neighborhood. As recently as 1983, the post had 420 members. It survives today, but just barely, with a declining roster of 113 (down from 141 in 2007), and fewer than a dozen active members.
The post moved a few times, ultimately acquiring a stolid three-story brick building in Canton that it sold in 2004 as the neighborhood was rapidly gentrifying. For a while, it met in a church. For the past two years, it has been convening the second Wednesday of each month at the Dundalk Memorial Post #6694 in Baltimore County, just feet from the city line.
The gatherings consist of a light supper and brief business meeting. At its September meeting, the post passed a budget, which included $500 donations to three Veterans Administration hospitals. There was talk of “comrades in distress”—including a man caring for a sick wife—and what could be done to help. The meeting ended with the hope that “we reflect honor upon our country and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Total attendance: seven men, ages 61 to 83.
“Some people call us a paper post,” says Clayton Deaver, 81, a past post commander who served in the Korean War and World War II. “As long as we do our programs,” he adds, the post will continue to exist. But for how much longer is uncertain.
Its name aside, the post’s direct connection with Gunther is strikingly absent. “The way I understand it is [the family was] never involved with the post,” says Deaver, a retired Sun papers distributor and post member since 1964 now serving as post quartermaster. Even Gunther’s ghost is AWOL.
Henry Nicholas John Gunther was born in Baltimore on June 6, 1895, the older of two sons of George and Lina Gunther, both American-born children of German immigrants. The family lived in the Highlandtown section of East Baltimore. The 1900 census lists George Gunther’s occupation as “can maker.”
By the time he registered for the draft in June 1917, Gunther was working as a bookkeeper for the National Bank of Baltimore and had a girlfriend, Olga Gruebl. Of medium build and height, with grey eyes and dark hair, he lived at 3011 Eastern Avenue, a small two-story rowhouse built in 1910 opposite Patterson Park.
Mustered in at what was then called Camp Meade, Gunther joined the newly formed 79th Division, 313th Infantry Regiment, known as “Baltimore’s Own.” The 313th, along with other regiments from Meade, sailed for France on July 8, 1918, on board the SS Leviathan, originally a German ocean liner seized by the U.S. government when America went to war.
By Nov. 11, Gunther’s regiment had been in steady combat for nearly two months. Though the Armistice agreement was signed at 5:10 that morning, military commanders did not inform the troops. At 9:30, the regiment advanced through a fog toward the objective, the village of Ville-devant-Chaumont. The 311th was to provide cover, but without visibility was unable to do so. Company A nonetheless proceeded toward its objective.